Welcome to the Year of the Voter

Highest turnout since 1968 produced two-hour lines - and talk of a new era of engagement.

If nothing else, the election of 2004 may be remembered as The Year of the Lines.

Fired by partisan passion, a greater percentage of US voters appeared to have cast ballots than at any time since 1968 - and if you were a resident of a swing state, sometimes all those people seemed to be waiting in front of you.

Waits were an hour, or two, or five. Volunteers passed out cookies, line-mates made friends, children turned crowded precinct rooms into impromptu playgrounds.

Some people waited in lines at airports, so they could fly home to wait in line to vote. Some brought no work, or nothing to read, and grabbed discarded newspapers eagerly, and were disappointed when they found the crossword puzzle already done.

Somewhere somebody probably got angry about all this, but that didn't seem to be the prevailing emotion. More usual were voters like Niama Smith, an older African-American woman with a cane from Columbus, Ohio, who waited three hours - and would have waited longer, except poll workers noticed she was handicapped and waved her through.

"And never in my life have I seen this," said Ms. Smith. "This is a blessing to see the turnout tonight ... This is a historic day."

As of Wednesday morning, figures kept by the Associated Press showed that 114.3 million people had voted, with 99 percent of US precincts reporting. Adding in another 5.5 million or so absentee and provisional ballots means that total votes cast will approach 120 million, according to Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.

That would mean that about 60 percent of eligible voters turned out, comparable to the figure of the tumultuous Vietnam-era election of 1968. In 2000, about 105.4 million voters weighed in, representing 54 percent of eligible voters. In 1996, Bill Clinton's reelection run produced only 96.3 million votes, about 49 percent of eligible voters.

Population growth accounts for some of the increase in vote numbers, of course. But that seemed a minor factor, at best, at the end of a long and bitter campaign in which voters of both political persuasions felt that losing was a black hole into which they did not want the nation to fall.

Kerry supporter Jay Cassavaugh, for instance, who had just finished voting at a Manchester, N.H., polling place, said he had gotten into a fight at work with a pro-Bush colleague. "I don't normally open my mouth, but ... it was just scare us, scare us," said the car salesman of his perception of the Bush campaign.

Nearby, Bush supporter Kathy Williams countered, "I used to think I'd just curl into a ball [if Kerry won], but I'm not going to worry about it. We are all for freedom and rights and a good life."

Meanwhile, Manchesterites Nancy Daskal and her friend, Kiko Statires, argued over who'd do a better job leading the country. Ms. Daskal voted Bush, Ms. Statires Kerry. They're both of Greek descent and have known each other for 45 years. Bush supporter Daskal: "I think he's doing the best he can."

Opponent Statires: "I totally disagree. I can't even look at Bush on TV.... I can't stand that he went to Iraq without United Nations approval."

Daskal: "Kiko, there will always be wars all the time. You want war to come over here?"

Within the overall rising tide of turnout, there was one group which did not perform to expectations, according to preliminary figures: the youth vote.

All the outreach to young voters, from music video campaigns to get-out-the-vote efforts on campus, had at least a nominal effect, as more 18-to-24-year-olds went to the polls this year than in 2000. As a group, this age bracket strongly supported Kerry.

Massachusetts high school senior Carlos Grau was typical. He blames Bush for bitterly dividing the nation.

"They make it like people voting for Kerry aren't Americans," he said.

But less than 10 percent of voters were under 25, about the same percentage as in 2000. Thus the Kerry campaign's hope for a big push from energized youth did not pan out.

Similarly, African-American voters remained about 10 percent of the electorate in 2004, according to the AP. President Bush had hoped to increase his numbers in this voting bloc, but he only got about 1 in 10 of their votes - again, a similar percentage to 2000.

Still, in certain areas, the black vote seemed energized. At Ohio Avenue Elementary, in an African-American neighborhood on the east side of Columbus, Ohio, there were only three voting machines and huge lines. It took two hours or more to vote. Jasper Green, an older man in an NBA cap, said of the wait: "We don't care.... If I had to be here till 9 tonight, I'd be here. There's too much at stake."

As the day wore on, the lines remained long. Kids began to cry. Young women handed out cookies. At times the mood grew festive. "I think I grew a year older waiting here," joked Tim Mullins, a construction worker with three kids who voted for the first time. "And I've been working all day. But as long as my ride doesn't leave, I'm going to stay."

From Pennsylvania to New Mexico, voters everywhere were passionate about their choices. The challenge for Bush now may lie in governing a country still sharply divided. Thus the last word goes to Jim Scandlin, a retired teacher from Wisconsin: "I listen to the radio because I drive a lot," he said. "And I listen to the Republican stations and they're way over on the right. I listen to 'Air America' and they're way over on the left. There must be somewhere we can get together."

Amanda Paulson in Ohio, Sara B. Miller in New Hampshire, and Frank Bures in Wisconsin contributed.

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